Robert Drewe is one of Australia’s finest and most awarded writers of fiction. From his precocious journalistic career, winning two Walkley Awards, to his debut novel, The Savage Crows, and through nearly 50 years of publishing, his beloved novels and short story collections – including The Drowner, The Shark Net, Our Sunshine and The Bay of Contented Men – have been recognised with the National Book Council award, a Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Premier’s literary award in every state, and many festival and book-of-the-year prizes. His works have been made into films, television dramas, stage plays and radio performances. His new novel, Nimblefoot, is published in August.
He chose to speak about Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel, Herzog.
Tell me of the first encounter.
When I was 27 I was trying to write my first novel, and I lived in a small sandstone terrace in North Sydney. I was calling the novel, with ominous Robert Ludlam-like overtones, The Genocide Thesis. I worked at night at an Olivetti portable on the kitchen table.
I was about 60 or 70 pages into the book when one night I suddenly had one of those abrupt voices in the head, which told me I had no idea what I was doing. And even if I did, who would want to read a contemporary novel about history? This was the ’70s: the local literary trend was for short stories and slender novels set in Carlton and Balmain about hard-drinking, work-shy libertarians and amoral English department lecturers. All the writers implied they were writing from life, from shared inner-city households rife with booze and drugs and sexual experimentation. That was the men. All the women had endless cups of tea and hand-rolled cigarettes and faux working-class dialogue and world-weary conversations. Lifestyle equalled literature then. Or Aust lit was about squattocracy – “dust on my bowyangs”, all those sort of books. It had yawning gaps in it: the cities, the coast, the professions, politics, Aboriginals, migrants – even the middle class, for god’s sake, it didn’t touch. It wasn’t the Australia that I recognised.
I was sitting at the table in the middle of my children’s Lego pieces, trying to write about someone obsessed with the 1830s. I got out the Metaxa brandy – in Sydney at the time, Greek food and drink were a literary mainstay – and watched the slugs gliding across the kitchen lino into the cat’s bowl. I thought: What am I going to do? How am I going to get on with this novel?
And then, at the end of the table where it had been lying untouched for months among the Lego, I noticed one of those old paperbacks of Herzog by Saul Bellow. I opened it and read the first sentence. “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” And it hit the spot. I read over the page and another sentence sealed it for me: “Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends.” I thought, well not only Moses Herzog: through my character, whose name was Stephen Crisp, I was too. I sat up and kept reading.
More bells rang. Bellow’s hero – a transported, wry, Jewish intellectual Canadian, not a million miles from Bellow, who lived in Chicago, whose wife has just left him for his best friend and who’s teetering on the edge of a breakdown – could hardly have been more different from my character, who was a disgruntled, agnostic journalist, not a million miles from myself, obsessed with writing a novel about a young man who was himself obsessed with the last days of the Tasmanian Aboriginals. That was me, and my character.
Yet I identified with Moses Herzog; with his grizzling and suffering and jokes, and his irony, I suppose. As a reader, not as a writer, I was swept away by his universality. And as a would-be novelist I also saw for the first time how effective a literary device inner realism – meditative realism – could be. I was very touched by this, very moved: it seemed I’d just discovered him.
He hadn’t won the Nobel then. I’d heard of him, of course. He wasn’t one of the American writers I’d previously read, everyone from Norman Mailer to Cheever and Updike and those people. He wasn’t boasting about being a male like they were. He did whinge, but he didn’t crow. Martin Amis said that the best writers are made of three components: littérateur, innocent and everyman. Bellow had each component in about equal measure. I envied not only his scholarship but the way he wore it lightly.
I liked his depth and range, how he wrote – and this especially appealed to me as a former journalist – about small-time criminals as well as professors and politicians and lawyers. He was no snob. I didn’t find anything harsh or cynical about it. I thought there was a knowingness, but even in the criminal character there was a sympathetic yet observant note. He was equally at ease in the street, the restaurant or the academy. I think this is how it should be, if you’re a writer. He relished and admired women, he agonised over children, and he knew and wrote about male friendship. So, sitting at the kitchen table, I could think of no better literary model.
He filled in the gaps for me. Herzog said it was important to explain, to have it out, to put into perspective, to clarify, to make amends. I changed the title of my book to The Savage Crows and started again.
You came from journalism to fiction; Bellow studied anthropology. They’re not dissimilar disciplines. Do you think you both took something from that observational training?
It seemed to me that I was trying to get away from the journalism side, because as literary editor of The Australian I knew that every critic was an academic who sneered at a journalistic background. No, it was more like the opposite. I was trying to use the Bellow method of trying to get the meditative thoughts, rather than the obvious physical appearances and so forth. I was able to make my central character have an inner life different to the one he would have had before I read Bellow.
We’re encouraged as writers, also as people, not to show the dithering, the uncertainty, the wobbling between the leap and the landing.
At that time it was a very rarefied atmosphere around writing. If you were 27 you had no chance. Patrick White ruled, and all the others were trying to be a bit rural. The fashionable young people were writing about Carlton and Balmain, and the establishment was writing about putting on fresh linen to go to town, and mooning around under the jacarandas. Bellow told me it was fine to write about the city, about the suburbs, about the whole human picture.
That book and the way that the character thought about life and everything, and needing to explain everything, was exactly how I was feeling at the time. It hit the spot.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Robert Drewe".
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